Villarreal, Atletico Madrid prove that strong defensive soccer has a place in modern game

Real Madrid vs. Manchester City is undoubtedly the glamour tie of the two UEFA Champions League semifinals, but the other offers a clash of styles that’s becoming increasingly rare at the highest level of football. If their quarterfinal performance against Bayern Munich is anything to go by, Villarreal is likely to set up in an extremely defensive system with all of their players close to their own penalty area and their opponents Liverpool will enjoy the vast majority of possession while trying to break down the “Yellow Submarine.”

Matchups in which one team has triple or quadruple the shots and time on the ball as their opponent are often categorised as “boring,” and undeservedly so. Not all defensive football is anti-football, and Villarreal is adding a refreshing bit of diversity to a competition that doesn’t feature as many different tactical styles as it once did. After all, the tactics employed by top teams appear to be getting increasingly similar.

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Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, once characterised as managers with opposing philosophies, have drifted closer to each other during their time in the Premier League. There is no tiki-taka vs. gegenpressing anymore; in fact, if you missed the past decade of men’s soccer at the elite level, it would be difficult to discern from a single Manchester City vs. Liverpool match which team was managed by an innovator in how to play without the ball and which was managed by an innovator in how to play with it.

And so, as they’ve competed for all major titles, these two formerly oppositional styles have collided and morphed into something aspirational that the majority of clubs all over the world want to replicate. City has become a more aggressive pressing team over recent years, while Liverpool has gradually become more possession oriented, something Klopp himself pointed out before the Premier League match between City and Liverpool on April 10.

“City has the highest possession in the league, we are not far behind,” Klopp told Sky Sports in an interview. “We have similar possession numbers. There are differences in our set up, but there’s not so much of a difference as there used to be. Both teams go for counterpress, want to win the ball back high.”

Thanks to advancements in nutrition and fitness training, as well as the wider acceptance and reliance on the collection and analysis of video and data, it’s easier than it’s ever been for clubs at any level to build teams that play pretty football out of the back and aggressively press their opponents. The quality that mid-budget teams in top leagues can display using this style is extremely impressive — Serie A’s Atalanta and Real Betis in LaLiga come most readily to mind — and there are more teams than ever before that play in a way that is popularly referred to as “good football.”

But this has come at the expense of tactical variety, and there are very few true clashes of styles at the top level of the game. All of the teams in the top tier of financial resources attempt to execute on the same macro-level vision for how the game is supposed to be played, with micro-level tweaks to maximise the talent of individuals and exploit matchups.

For this reason, a couple of the recent Champions League quarterfinal ties were a breath of fresh air.

Atlético Madrid, the one side that’s consistently bucked all these tactical trends under manager Diego Simeone, opted to camp all 11 of its players within 30 yards of its own goal in the first leg of its tie against Manchester City. Phil Foden got City on the board once, but Atléti persisted with its tactics in the first half of the second leg, albeit with a bit more ambition on the counterattack. Simeone’s side had to open up to chase a goal in the final 45 minutes of the tie, but with what they did in the previous 135, they gave themselves a chance to progress to the semifinal.

Between the gaps in both form and technical talent separating the two teams at present, facing Manchester City in a tactical mirror matchup would have likely resulted in Atléti going down by much more than one goal.

Atléti’s tactics produced a type of spectacle that used to be quite common, but has become increasingly rare at the highest level of the game: A team with top attacking talent struggling to break down a perfectly organized bunker. It wouldn’t be very entertaining if most football matches played out like that, but in the current era of more homogeneous tactics, it felt like a nice little treat.

A similar pair of matches played out between Villarreal and Bayern Munich, but with a bit more precision on the counter for the underdogs, which produced an even better result. Villarreal bunkered deep with two “banks” of four players in a defensive 4-4-2 system, finishing the tie with 35% possession to Bayern’s 65% and 16 shots to Bayern’s 45.

These staggering gaps suggest that the Bavarians were the significantly better side and unlucky not to progress, but according to Michael Caley’s Expected Goals model, which is calculated using Opta data, Bayern only generated 0.5 more xG than Villarreal from those 29 additional shots. The Yellow Submarine’s deep and organised defending frustrated their opponents into taking a lot of poor quality shots from outside the box. Put another way, the team that was ostensibly in control of the tie (Bayern) and the one that was on the back foot (Villarreal) ended the 180 minutes with the same number of high quality chances from central areas inside the box.

Building around the players that fit your style

If you’re Villarreal, you can’t have it all when it comes to player recruitment. Bayern Munich can sign players with no real weaknesses, but Villarreal have to pick and choose what skills they want to emphasise in certain positions and build a squad with individual skills that complement each other while also masking each other’s deficiencies. And the style of play used by Villarreal boss Unai Emery in the quarterfinal maximized the talent of the players he had available.

In midfielder Dani Parejo, Villarreal has a player who does not have the athletic qualities to succeed in a transitional game against a team of Bayern’s quality, though he does have the passing ability to create dangerous attacks from a very small number of opportunities — among central midfielders, he’s in the 97th percentile for Expected Assists in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Striker Gerard Moreno is similarly not a pressing machine, but excellent technically. His fellow attacker Samuel Chukwueze is not yet a consistent provider of goals and assists at 22 years old, but has the ability to create something out of nowhere coming off the bench.

If Villarreal tried to match Bayern for style, they would have been humiliated. Instead, Emery created conditions where his players could be successful, and that trio capitalised on their best opportunity of the second leg with a precision counterattack to win the tie.

Champions League matchups like these two quarterfinals — ones where a side has a significant advantage in talent and the other has to figure out how to get the best out of the players they have to stand any chance — are just as compelling as games where two evenly matched sides are throwing haymakers at each other.

Football is at its best when there’s variety, and we’re blessed to have been presented with two completely different Champions League semifinals. Manchester City vs. Real Madrid, a matchup between two teams who wouldn’t know how to sit back in a bunker in the unlikely event it was demanded of them, was a back-and-forth thriller with multiple goals for both sides in Tuesday’s first leg at the Etihad. But it’s just as intriguing to see Liverpool, a team that thrives on attacking quickly into open spaces, have to contend with a Villarreal team that’s proven they can stifle Europe’s best with their low defensive block.

Everton was kind enough to give the Reds a test run in Sunday’s Merseyside Derby, keeping Liverpool off the scoreboard (and with zero shots on target) until the 62nd minute by defending with all 11 men deep in their own half, but ultimately falling 2-0. In Villarreal, Liverpool will meet a team that is likely to set up with a similar deep position, albeit with a bit more quality to play out of trouble and execute counterattacks.

Many fans — perhaps even Atléti and Villarreal’s own supporters — would prefer to see these defensive sides break out of their shells and show a little bravery, but if every team plays the same style of football and the game becomes tactically homogeneous, we’re left with something that’s frankly not interesting, and loses its value as an entertainment product. If the only reason you watch the game is to see pretty goals, save yourself some time and take a trip to YouTube. You can binge hundreds of them in 20 minutes. The presence of great defensive football is what makes great attacking football so satisfying.

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